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December 28, 2012 | Q&A

From Intuition to Creation

Bill Duggan explains how innovations are made, from idea to implementation.


What is creative strategy?

It’s a classic case of “theory to practice.” My previous book, Strategic Intuition, laid out the theory. It explained the science of how creative ideas happen in the human mind and documented how successful innovators actually came up with their innovations. This new book, Creative Strategy, is the practice: it shows how to apply that theory as an innovation method yourself.

Here’s how it works: you start with a problem or situation where you aim for an innovation, break that down in to elements of the problem, and then search for precedents that solve each element. You then see a subset of these precedents come together in your mind as a new combination that solves the problem. That idea is your innovation.

You start the book with a history tracing the last few decades of discoveries in neuroscience. What does the new neuroscience have to do with creative strategy?

I was surprised to discover that 99 percent of innovation methods that people use today are based on a model of the brain that neuroscientists abandoned more than a decade ago. In essence, these innovation methods tell you to do some kind of research or analysis, and then you brainstorm to come up with your innovation idea. The theory of brainstorming is that you turn off your analytical left brain, turn on your intuitive right brain, and creative ideas pop out. But neuroscience now tells us that there is no right or left side of the brain when it comes to thinking. Creative ideas actually happen in the mind, as the whole brain takes in past elements, then selects and combines them — and that’s how creative strategy works.

You’re not a big fan of traditional methods of strategic analysis and innovation, fair to say? Should we just throw them all out the window?

There’s nothing wrong with traditional methods of strategic analysis. But after you do your analysis, then what? You need a creative idea for what to do. These methods don’t tell you how to get that. Traditional innovation methods tell you to brainstorm next. That’s the problem. When it comes to the actual idea for your innovation, these methods leave it to the magic of the creative right side of the brain.

Similarly, expertise can get in the way of creative strategy, correct? Can you explain?

Brainstorming works fine when you don’t need an innovation. People brainstorm mostly to solve problems they already know how to solve with their current expertise, at least as a group. When you brainstorm, you really throw out ideas from your personal experience — these come to mind fastest and strongest. If you have a problem that the total personal expertise of six people can solve, then brainstorming is very efficient. But if the solution actually lies outside their personal expertise, brainstorming is a trap — you toss out ideas and get conventional wisdom, not an innovation.

So we do the matrix, we do the iterations of the process, we keep doing the what-works scans, and the rest of the steps you outline in the book. How do we know when we’ve found a solution?

Sometimes you don’t find a solution. You can’t solve every problem on earth, though of course I wish we could. At some point you “see it” or you don’t. That is, the precedents you find seep into your mind and some of them connect to give you an idea. That can happen after one day of searching, or one week, or one month, or never. Of course in most companies you have some kind of deadline, but the key is to start early enough so you give yourself at least two months to search. The time you would normally take for strategic analysis, use it for search instead.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind — or do — once you’ve got that creative combination and you’re ready to make things happen?

Keep an open mind as you work hard on your idea: the idea should change as you proceed, perhaps slightly, perhaps dramatically. You’ve found enough elements to get started, and you’ll need many more as you proceed. You might even have to do the full creative strategy method again if you run into a big problem and need a new idea for that piece of the puzzle.

What habits of mind — and operations — can people and firms cultivate to open the door to strategic intuition and creative combination, even when they are not facing a specific problem?

People should cultivate curiosity about how exactly things succeed and cultivate “presence of mind” where they deal calmly with problems and let their minds wander freely rather than look for quick answers because they feel stress. For firms it’s harder, because they have myriad procedures in place already that can work against creative strategy. For example, in a typical planning cycle, does the firm start with the question “Where would we like to innovate if we could?” If not, it’s already too late, because everyone has already started down a road of goals, initiatives, timelines, and deadlines. Everyone gets busy; now the only “creative” time they can spare is two-hour or two-day brainstorming. Instead, a company should do creative strategy well before the start of its planning cycle, so by the time it has to plan, it actually has an innovation to implement. But that requires a company to turn its whole cycle of procedures upside down. That’s a tall order for any company.

You teach a lab course where business school students learn creative strategy and apply it to real innovation projects for major firms. How does that work?

I’ve been teaching a course on the theory — strategic intuition — and now this lab course teaches the practice — creative strategy — with real projects with real companies. It turns out that an academic semester matches well how long it takes to do a proper job of creative strategy. My co-teacher for the lab is Ken Favaro, a senior partner at Booz & Co., who has an innovation team there that does this method for their clients too. We seek firms that have a problem they don’t see a way to solve and that don’t have enough free time to work on it themselves.

For example, a big entertainment company had a complex product that worked great in one limited sector and they wanted to expand to other media and venues but worried about losing the quality that made them so distinctive in the first place. A team of four students goes through the creative strategy method with each client company — they break down the problem together, then the student team spends weeks searching for precedents on different pieces of the problem. The team then brings those precedents back to the client so they can see the combinations themselves, but the students also propose a combination and a plan to implement it. It’s “theory to practice” again.

In the case of that big entertainment company, when the students broke down the problem, their search solved some of the pieces and not others, and led them in a different direction that solved a different but equally important problem. The company was surprised — shocked, actually — that the students changed the problem, but was delighted in the end. They realized it’s better to solve an important problem they didn’t think of than not solve a important problem they did think of! That kind of “surprise” is the essence of innovation — otherwise known as creative strategy.

William R. Duggan is senior lecturer in business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Duggan, William.
Creative Strategy: A Guide for Innovation. Columbia University Press, New York, 2012


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